The Rev. Darrin Connall sent a message of congratulations to Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich soon after news broke that the leader of the Catholic Church in Eastern Washington was getting a huge promotion.
Cupich was named the next archbishop of Chicago at a news conference Saturday.
“He texted back two words: ‘Pray hard,’ ” Connall told congregants during a homily at the Saturday vigil Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral in downtown Spokane.
Cupich’s response perhaps signals not only his greater responsibilities (Chicago’s diocese is 2.2 million strong, compared to Spokane’s 90,000), but new fame and giant expectations.
On Saturday, Cupich was featured prominently not only on the websites of Chicago media outlets, but national ones like the New York Times. He is widely assumed to become a future cardinal who might pull the church in the United States in a more moderate direction.
At the Saturday morning news conference in Chicago, Cupich was asked about his reputation as a moderate who does not dwell on hot-button issues like abortion or same-sex marriage.
“Labels are hard for anybody to live up to one way or another,” Cupich said. “I just try to be myself.”
Cupich heard rumors that he was under consideration for leading the third-largest Catholic diocese in the United States. He didn’t know for sure until about 10 days ago, when he was informed by the papal nuncio – the pope’s representative in the United States – that he had been selected by Pope Francis to be Chicago’s archbishop.
“There were rumors,” Cupich said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon from Nebraska, where he went to visit family after the news conference in Chicago. “But there’s a rumor du jour sometimes in the church.”
Cupich came to Spokane in 2010 as the diocese was dealing with the fallout of bankruptcy. He has gained a reputation as a capable administrator who is open to opposing views.
But he is not afraid of challenges. Under his leadership, the diocese is suing the law firm that represented it during its bankruptcy.
He said Spokane has been extremely welcoming.
“My impressions of the diocese, but also the city and Eastern Washington, are so favorable that I know that I’m going to miss it a great deal,” Cupich said. “Spokane will always have a place in my heart.”
Cupich will not be installed as Chicago’s archbishop until Nov. 18. He said he will be splitting his time between Spokane and Chicago until then.
After Saturday’s Mass at Spokane’s cathedral, Connall acknowledged that some parishioners are concerned about Cupich’s departure.
“We’re not used to not having a bishop,” he said. “It’s always difficult for Catholics when we don’t have our shepherd.”
Besides dealing with the bankruptcy caused by clergy abuse scandals, Cupich has focused on rebuilding trust in the church.
Just last week, the Spokane diocese published a letter from Cupich outlining a four-year plan, called the Know Love and Serve initiative, aimed at reinvigorating the diocese.
He said people in general are disengaging from organized religion, but some have felt alienated.
The church must ensure people don’t feel excluded, he said.
“It should impress upon church leadership to be creative in its ways to invite people to join in that community experience of church, and I think that we’re doing that well,” he said.
Cupich said the process for finding a new bishop could take about nine months. In the interim, he said, his consulters, a group of six priests in the diocese, will elect someone to serve as the administrator of the diocese.
The papal nuncio will lead the process of finding a new bishop and will consult priests and laity within the Spokane Diocese and bishops, Cupich said. He will select three finalists. The Congregation for Bishops will pick one to recommend to Pope Francis, who will make the final decision, Cupich said.
Karin Heller, a Whitworth theology professor and Catholic who has studied at the Vatican, called Cupich’s departure “a great loss for the diocese.”
“I’m not surprised because I think Bishop Cupich and Pope Francis have many things in common,” Heller said.
One of those things, Heller said, is they lead with a vision based in compassion and mercy.
Another, she said, is that Francis and Cupich are open to dialogue, compared to some previous popes, such as Pope John Paul II, who had a “black and white” vision of the world.
She once hosted Cupich at her home for dinner with Protestant members of Whitworth’s theology department. The conversation was respectful and engaged, she said.
Cupich was active in opposing same-sex marriage when it was considered by Washington voters in 2012.
He surprised some by agreeing to debate Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder on the topic at a Rotary forum about the initiative.
“People went away realizing that both of us made some good points,” Cupich said when asked Saturday about the debate with Snyder. “People were pleased that I felt confident enough about my position that I would be able to have a back-and-forth with someone. My role in that was to get people to think, and I don’t think you can get people to think in a monologue. You have to have a dialogue.”
Snyder said he came away from the debate impressed and describes the bishop as dignified, intelligent and thought-provoking.
“I have great, great respect for him, just getting to know him and doing that,” he said. “It was the kind of leadership we need from our religious leaders, who are willing to stand up in a public forum and be articulate about their beliefs.”
Snyder called Cupich’s departure “a big loss.”
“He was a really settling influence after all that’s happened in the diocese,” Snyder said. “The sense I got from my friends who are Catholic was that he helped move things in a better direction.”
Cupich does have critics.
Parishioner Maura Dixon said that while Cupich’s theological viewpoints were fine, she disagreed with some of his decisions.
“I didn’t agree with the stance he’s taken on the attorneys in the bankruptcy,” she said.
Dixon said she hopes Spokane’s next bishop will be more approachable, like former Bishop William Skylstad, Cupich’s predecessor.
“I hope the next bishop is a shepherd, much like Pope Francis is a man for the common person,” she said.
Cupich will arrive back in Spokane later this week.
“I look forward to the weeks that we have ahead,” Cupich said. “I’m grateful for everyone’s prayers and support.”
Connall said the announcement was “a shocker for all of us.”
“I’m happy for Chicago,” Connall said. “But it’s going to feel empty for us.”
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